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Suu Kyi’s risky tour

July 07, 2011

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AUNG San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader, is treading carefully as she embarks on a series of visits around the country, the first time she has ventured beyond Yangon since her release from house arrest last November. When she toured the provinces last time in 2003, regime-backed thugs murdered more than 70 of her supporters and did their utmost to kill her too.

She is gently testing the sincerity of the regime's supposed commitment to more open politics following last year's unconvincing facelift, when junta generals swapped uniforms for suits and had themselves elected in a vote so outrageously gerrymandered it would have made Robert Mugabe blush.

In a measure of the dangers she faces, both political and physical, members of her banned National League for Democracy (NLD) insist her four-day trip to the temple city of Bagan, which began on Monday, is a pilgrimage, not a meet-the-people tour. They have to say that. While pro-regime parties are tolerated, the NLD — which won Myanmar's last free election in 1990 — has been told to keep out of politics. The regime says she can travel only as a private citizen. There will be no public speeches.

However, Aung San Suu Kyi's reappearance among ordinary Burmese people four years after the brutal suppression of the 'saffron revolution' is an intensely political moment. Like her BBC Reith lectures and her pre-recorded address to the US Congress, the national tour sends an unmistakable signal: her passionate crusade for freedom and democracy cannot ultimately be denied.

Her presence — and her consistent message of non-violent resistance, dignified dissent, dialogue and national reconciliation — confounds attempts to vilify her and her supporters as reckless subversives and saboteurs. The regime surely knows this. All the same, it clings to the old mix of vicious propaganda and threats. Hence last week's intimidatory warning that her tour could cause “chaos and riots”. Financial Times

Aung San Suu Kyi has little choice but to tread softly, but the same is not true of foreign governments. Both regional and western powers have been too quick to buy into the generals' risible reform narrative. The most egregious recent example came from Markus Loning, Germany's federal commissioner for human rights, who argued in a article that sanctions on the regime should be “fine-tuned” to reward supposed post-election improvements.

Burma Campaign UK said the article was “slanted towards the German agenda” of relaxing pressure on Myanmar to increase trade. It said: “This is not a new policy, but in the past Germany has denied that it has pushed to relax sanctions, hiding behind the confidentiality of internal EU meetings. Germany has finally come out of the closet.”

Germany is not alone in claiming to discern progress. A stream of foreign politicians, including US senator John McCain and Australia's Kevin Rudd, have been allowed into Myanmar this year.

The US and EU have softened their stance on sanctions; the UN appears to have backed away from officials' calls for an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity. — The Guardian, London